An open letter to Georgia Gov.-elect Brian Kemp
Dear Brian Kemp,
As you prepare to step into the governor’s office, you stand at a crossroads.
Will you be a governor who embodies the image you presented during the primaries – a gun-toting, anti-immigration, pro-religious liberty leader who divides our state?
Or will you be a unifying force who appeals to Georgia’s demographic diversity, its rural and urban areas as well as someone who will nurture economic development in all corners of the state?
It’s hard to tell whether you’ll take the low road or the high road based on early indicators during your tenure as governor-elect.
There are several encouraging signs.
Your transition team reflects the demographic diversity that exists in Georgia – including both younger and more seasoned leaders as well as Latinos, Asians, LGBT, African-Americans and women. That bodes well for the kind of administration you will build over time.
One downside is that as far as I can tell, all the transition team members in leadership positions are white males.
Obviously the list includes Republican stalwarts and people who have been in yours inner circle for years, if not decades. It would be wonderful if you included some Democratic leaders in that inner circle in the future. State Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus), for example, has been quite public about the need for the political parties to work together in the interest of what’s best for Georgia.
Several of the team members also were part of the administration of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, which also is not surprising. (Perdue, who is now U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, appointed Kemp as Georgia’s Secretary of State in early 2010 when then-Secretary of State Karen Handel resigned to run for governor. Kemp was elected as Secretary of State that November. He served in that role until this past November, when the voting was finished in his race with Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams.
Without question, Sonny Perdue and his cousin – U.S. Senator David Perdue (R-Georgia) were instrumental in your election. As I understand it, they played a role in getting President Donald Trump to endorse you in the primary and to come campaign for you two days before the November election.
So it makes me wonder that when you become governor, will you follow the Perdue model or the model of outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal? Or will it be a hybrid?
When Perdue surprisingly won the 2002 gubernatorial election, he did so without the support of most of Atlanta’s business community, which was backing then-Gov. Roy Barnes’ re-election. Within months of Perdue taking office, the battle over changing the state flag also tested the relationship between the governor and the business community
Unfortunately, the relationship between Perdue and the Atlanta business community was strained during most of his years as governor.
Gov. Deal, by comparison, has built a strong relationship with Atlanta business leaders – largely through his strong economic development platform and through his friendship with former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. It sent a signal that we had moved beyond the two Georgias – Atlanta versus the rest of the state. It showed we were a more united Georgia – and Deal and Reed were able to move the state further by taking advantage of their ties with different political parties.
You have said rural economic development is a top priority for you, and that is commendable. I just hope that it is not at the expense of development in metro Atlanta, which is the economic engine of Georgia. You have been quoted as saying you want to unite the state, and I’m hoping you will do just that.
But one discouraging development is your “Georgia First Celebration” bus tour to nine communities – Augusta, Savannah, Fort Valley, Blakely, Chula, Columbus, Whitesburg, Gainesville and Dalton.
Although metro Atlanta represents nearly half of the state’s population, you are not making one stop in the region. That is disconcerting.
Some could argue you didn’t have a strong base of support in metro Atlanta, and since this is a “thank you” tour, it doesn’t make sense for you to make a stop in the region. Maybe so. But at some point, you need to make it clear, through your actions, that you are governor for all of Georgia– including the areas that supported you and those that did not.
Brian Kemp’s spokesman Cody Hall contacted me after the posting of this column to explain the rationale behind the statewide celebratory tour. Because all three of the official inaugural events plus the gala will be held in Atlanta next week, the Kemp team “wanted to have ‘inaugural events’ all across the state as well,” Hall explained.
On a positive note, you made a great statement when you drove across the street to meet with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Dec. 5, the day after Georgia held run-off elections. What a warm gesture you initiated, one that bodes well for future relations between the state and its capital city.
An area of ongoing concern, however, is your repeated commitment to passing a religious liberty bill. You told me it would mirror the language in the 1993 federal religious liberty bill, and that people should not have a problem with that language.
But times have changed since 1993. And the mere mention of religious liberty legislation sends ripples of concerns throughout Georgia’s economic development circles, including our prospering film industry.
My hope is that you would leave well enough alone. Gov. Deal has said Georgia’s attempt to pass religious liberty legislation is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Several people I talked to said they would hope such legislation would never reach your desk – and we can count on leaders in the General Assembly to prevent it from getting out of committee.
Let’s hope that’s true. But if you were to publicly back away from religious liberty legislation, it would remove a cloud that threatens Georgia’s ability to retain its title as the No. 1 state for business.
People who know you well say you’re a warm person who will be one of the hardest working governors Georgia has ever had. I hear you don’t hold grudges and that you are willing to work with people who may not always agree with you.
I have had my own example of how you work.
Shortly after you were elected as Secretary of State, I reached out to you with a concern. As chair of the Loudermilk-Young Debate Series for the Atlanta Press Club, I was quite discouraged after the 2010 election cycle. Several incumbent candidates did not accept the invitation to our debates, which meant we had several empty-podium debates.
Because you were Secretary of State, I thought you may have some ideas on how we could get candidates to accept our invitation.
A few days after we spoke, you called me to say you had been thinking about our problem. Because we didn’t always have strong viewership for our debates, you said candidates may have felt it wasn’t worth their while to participate. You told me that we needed to do everything we could to make our debates events that candidates could not skip. That meant giving them life beyond a one-time broadcast by promoting them on social media and making sure they had an ongoing presence online.
Thanks to you and others, we brought in a social media team to help us, and we began to livestream our debates. In 2014, we had 100 percent participation among the candidates we had invited. And in 2018, our televised gubernatorial debate – the only one that was held – we had 235,000 views on our Facebook page with a reach of 587,047. That did not include the views on GPB’s website or the people who watched the live debate.
That encounter told me a lot about you. You were thoughtful, honest and constructive. And you helped us improve what we do.
So in this open letter to you, I want to publicly thank you for your help.
And I wish you the best as our next governor.